The Library of Congress celebrates its 214th birthday today. Founded on April 24, 1800, thanks to an appropriation approved by Pres. John Adams of $5,000 for the purchase of “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.” What started with a whopping 740 books and three maps has evolved to more than 158 million items, including more than 36 million books and other print materials, 5.5 million maps, 69 million manuscripts, 13.7 million photographs, 6.7 million pieces of sheet music and 3.5 million recordings.
Thomas Jefferson took a keen interest in the Library and its collection while he was president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. In fact, he approved the first law defining the role and functions of the new institution, including the creation of the post of Librarian of Congress. When the British army invaded the city of Washington in August 1814 and burned the Capitol, where the nascent 3,000-volume Library of Congress was located, Jefferson sold his personal library of 6,487 volumes to replace what had been lost.
The Library was housed in the Capitol until 1867. Sixth Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864–97) was the first to propose that the Library be moved to a dedicated building. He also was instrumental in establishing the copyright law of 1870. That year Spofford sent Rep. Thomas A. Jenckes, chair of the Patent and Copyright Committee, a list of reasons U. S. copyright activities should be centered at the Library. When Pres. Ulysses S. Grant signed such a bill, a flood of copyright deposits – books, maps, music, pamphlets – filled the small space assigned to the Library in the Capitol. Overflow was moved to the Capitol attics and along the basement corridors. By mid-decade, Spofford was putting volumes along the walls of committee rooms, down the first- and second- floor corridors and against the public staircases.
The Thomas Jefferson Building was built from 1886 to 1897 in the style of the Italian Renaissance. Superintendent of Construction Bernard Green and architect Thomas Casey planned and commissioned the amazing variety and type of sculpture in the Jefferson Building. William Boyd organized much of the sculpture created in workshops – both marble carving and stucco molding – housed in the building. Boyd documented the cost of materials, time and workers involved in creating the hundreds of sculptural details, such as column capitals and figures like the eagle. More than 50 American artisans contributed their talents to the symbolic sculptural and painted decoration of the building.
Green and Casey selected noted artists for major sculptural works in the building. Among the commissions, Philip Martiny’s cherubs along the grand stairwell and Olin Warner’s spandrel group “The Students,” located directly across the great hall from the main bronze doors, were carved at the Piccirilli Brothers marble carving studios in New York City. Warner’s bronze doors depicting memory and imagination were cast at the John Thompson forge shop in New York. Green recorded the daily progress on the Jefferson Building in his Journal of Operations, including in 1897 that Warner’s “The Students” had arrived from Piccirilli Bros. and was ready to install.
On Nov. 1, 1897, at 9 a.m., the new Library building (now known as the Thomas Jefferson Building) officially opened to the public – 25 years after Spofford had begun his entreaty. Several days later, the transfer of Library materials – some 800 tons – into the new building was completed.
The Library continued to expand its Capitol Hill campus in 1928 and 1971
1957 , with the addition of the John Adams and James Madison Memorial buildings, respectively. You can take a virtual tour of all three here.
Today, the Library’s Hill campus has multiple reading rooms and exhibit spaces available to the public. In 2013, approximately 1.6 million people visited the Library. The Library’s website was visited more than 84 million times that year. Offsite facilities include the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va; vast modular storage at Ft. Meade; and numerous international offices.
For more information on the history of the Library of Congress and its buildings, see “Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress” and “On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress.”
Searching the Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for “Library of Congress” brings forth numerous images of the construction of the Jefferson Building and its architectural drawings, as well as vivid color photographs of the Library’s Capitol Hill campus and buildings interiors.